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Day Schools Learn New Math During Economic Downturn

Throughout the prosperous 1990s, the Agnon School, a non-denominational Jewish day school in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, experienced steady growth in student enrollment.

In the last few years, however, with the national economic downturn, the student population has fallen by more than a quarter — from a high of 410 students enrolled in its pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes in 1999 to only 303 at the end of the past academic year.

“As soon as the bottom fell out of the stock market, our enrollment began to decline,” said the school’s director of admissions and marketing, Nancy Kekst. She said that the precarious economic situation makes it harder for the school — where annual tuition runs from $8,055 for kindergarten to $9,500 for seventh and eighth grades — to compete for parents’ increasingly scarce dollars with the area’s many excellent public schools, which have the advantage of being free.

Meanwhile, even as income from its own endowment has fallen, Agnon must deal with the heightened needs of its remaining students. In 2001, 56% of new families enrolling children in the school needed tuition assistance, said Kekst, a proportion that rose to 76% last year.

These are tough times for many Jewish day schools across the country. Enrollments and budgets at Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and non-denominational day schools all grew throughout the 1990s. Now, however, many are coping with falling enrollments, shrinking endowment income, and a tough fundraising climate. At the same time, they are facing increasing demands for tuition assistance from students whose parents have become unemployed or lost money as a result of declining stocks and a weak economy.

“There is probably no Jewish day school in the United States that is not looking very, very carefully at the impact of a down-turned economy, in terms of the capacity of families to pay tuition, the capacity of the philanthropic community — writ large and writ small — to support the school through acts of charity, through acts of tzedakah, as well as what the long-term implications are for the operating budgets of schools,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak: The Jewish Community Day School Network, an association of 75 non-denominational or “community” schools in North America, with a combined enrollment of approximately 20,000 students.

In an informal spring survey of its member schools, Ravsak found that of the 25 schools responding, 19 anticipated either flat enrollment or decreases ranging from 2% to 10% for the upcoming academic year. The six schools that saw increases largely attributed their growth to the addition of new grades. The most common factor offered to explain the stagnating and declining numbers was the economic downturn, and particularly its impact on middle-class families.

The Conservative movement’s 76 Solomon Schechter day schools have also seen a decline in enrollment. Their collective student population at the end of the previous academic year stood at 19,987, down 389 students from the prior year, said Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association.

While a drop of about 2% may seem modest, Abramson said: “We’ve been a system that’s used to growing, so it’s a substantial drop.”

The vast majority of Jewish day school enrollment remains in Orthodox schools. Approximately 80% of the estimated 200,000 students enrolled in Jewish day schools nationwide study at Orthodox institutions, said Marvin Schick, a senior consultant to the Avi Chai Foundation and an expert on day schools. Moreover, Orthodox school enrollments seem less sensitive to economic conditions than their non-Orthodox counterparts.

“In the Orthodox community, day school education has been perceived in large measure as something that is not very negotiable. It’s seen as a sine qua non to the kind of lifestyle and the kind of education that parents want to provide for their kids,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a group that promotes day-school education. “I think once you leave the Orthodox community, people perceive that they have a wider choice.”

Indeed, Orthodox schools contacted by the Forward reported that they have not experienced declining enrollment of the sort seen at many non-Orthodox institutions. While enrollment at the Agnon School has declined, the nearby 700-student Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school, is growing. The academy’s finance director, Rabbi Eli Dessler, said he could not recall any student dropping out recently because of the economic situation.

Still, while they may avoid the problem of declining enrollment, Orthodox schools are not immune to the effects of the economic downturn. Dessler said that some parents have lost their jobs and there has been increased demand for tuition assistance at the school, where tuition runs between $6,230 for kindergarten and $9,000 for high school. He said that 68% of students are on some form of scholarship and that tuition covers only somewhere between 30% and 38% of the school’s budget.

Due to the new financial obligations placed on it by the sputtering economy, as well as costs associated with the opening last year of its new girls’ high school building, said Dessler, the academy has had to cut costs. It has frozen staff salaries, outsourced its food services and begun handling cleaning in-house. Fortunately, he said, donors have come through with needed funds, so the budget has not declined. But, he added, raising money has been “an uphill battle.”

Non-Orthodox schools are also taking affirmative measures to deal with the changed economic landscape.

The Ezra Academy, a Schechter school in the New Haven, Conn., suburb of Woodbridge, saw its enrollment fall to 193 last year from an earlier peak of 225, said the school’s head, Shelley Kreiger. In response, the kindergarten through eighth-grade school has stepped up its recruitment and retention efforts. The school, where annual tuition is $10,500 for all grades and the proportion of students receiving some amount of tuition assistance floats between 13% and 20%, this year began offering $600 per student credits for students enrolling early and $1,000 discounts to each new family enrolling a child in kindergarten, said Kreiger. With such incentives, she said, enrollment at the school, the budget of which is “primarily tuition dependent,” is expected to rise to 208 for the coming academic year.

“For us to go from 193 back to 208 in a bad year, we consider a major jump,” she said, “and we’ve been working hard on it.”

Ravsak’s Kramer said that while some schools are “entering periods of financial crisis,” most are going to “hunker down” and find ways of coping.

Agnon’s Kekst said that her school, where tuition covers about half of the budget, is borrowing temporarily from its endowment to cover deficits and has “substantially increased” its budget line for tuition assistance. She said that while the school has had to lay off some clerical staff and have some teachers work part time rather than full time, fundraising has stayed fairly steady, and the school has tried to cut in areas that do not impact student education.

Kekst professed optimism about the future.

“We offer a solid foundation of Jewish values. That’s not something you can get in public schools. And that added character education can’t be replaced in public school,” Kekst said. “We feel that our enrollment will come back.”

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